Local elections - what are voters telling us?

by Steve Howell

Fact-free political commentary is now so instantaneous that perceptions of political events are shaped before the outcome of those events is even known or, in the case of elections, before most of the votes are counted.


The media has, of course, always tried to contain debate within parameters that don’t threaten capitalism. As Noam Chomsky puts it: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” However, the speed with which news travels now means that even a cursory attempt to assemble some facts to support a view is sacrificed in the drive to establish it as the pervasive ‘narrative’. The recent local elections in England were a classic case of this. With very few results in, TV political commentators started talking about “a plague on both your houses”, implying that the Tories and Labour had done equally badly. 

Meanwhile, protagonists for a so-called People’s Vote, such as Tottenham Labour MP David Lammy, were using gains made by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens as evidence of a ‘swing’ to Remain. “The only parties that did well,” he tweeted, “are unambiguously pro-Remain. The message is clear. We need to square up to the country and tell the truth. Brexit is a disaster and the Leave campaign lied to you.” Another Labour MP, Bridget Phillipson, said: “Both Labour and the Tories saw votes that have previously been cast for them move elsewhere, above all to the parties that want us to stay in the EU” (my emphasis). The Houghton and Sunderland South MP highlighted the fact that the Liberal Democrats and Greens had won Sunderland council seats from Labour – two and one respectively – but glossed over Labour’s loss of more seats to UKIP and the Tories – three and four respectively.

Sunderland’s Labour council leader Graeme Miller was not impressed. He told the BBC that it was actually the behaviour of the city’s Labour MPs that had caused the losses. He said: “Sunderland voted as a city to leave in June 2016 and, having had a Labour message across the city from MPs saying we need to be having a second referendum, the people of Sunderland have said we’re just not accepting that from the Labour party. And I have lost ten councillors tonight because of that situation where the Brexit message has stepped into and over local politics.”


So, what are the facts? And are there any trends or lessons we can draw from them?

Once all the results were in, Labour ended up with a net loss of 63 seats – 244 gains outweighed by 307 losses - compared to a 1,269 Tory net loss. The Tories losing twenty times as many seats as Labour is hardly a plague on both your houses, but it is fair to ask why Labour did not make a net gain, building on its electoral advance in 2017.

The pattern of Labour results is key. The 248 Councils where seats were contested split three ways: in just over a third Labour made gains, in under a third we made losses, and the rest saw no change for Labour or were where Labour didn't hold seats.

Of the seventy or so councils in England where Labour lost seats, 22 saw losses of five or more. Labour's problem was geographically and politically very concentrated: the 22 councils were ALL in Brexit voting areas in the Midlands and North of England, with the north east, Cumbria and former mining areas such as Barnsley, North East Derbyshire and Bolsover to the fore.

Crucially, in 21 of the 22 districts where Labour lost five or more seats, only 22% were taken by the Liberal Democrats or Greens. The rest went to independent, Tory or UKIP candidates.

Labour’s 244 gains were spread fairly evenly across nearly 100 Council districts. There were, though, 14 districts where Labour gained five or more seats. Half of these were in the South, but there were also some Northern/Midlands councils with Brexit-leaning voters where Labour gained five or more seats.


So what about the Lib Dems? They made a net gain of 676 seats, but this was from the trough of 2015 when they had one of their worst ever results after five years of delivering austerity with the Tories. Their gains were mostly from the Tories and were as geographically concentrated as Labour's BUT in a different part of England - Bath, Somerset, Devon, Chelmsford, Bournemouth, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Dorset, Surrey, Hampshire and other parts of the south and south west. Chesterfield - where they won 7 seats from Labour - was an exception.

The Liberal Democrat gains in the south appear to have had more to do with a collapse in the Tory vote than any or many switching to them for Remain reasons. When Britain Elects statistician Simon Briscoe analysed the Chelmsford results, where the Liberal Democrats gained 26 seats from the Tories, he found that aggregate Tory vote had fallen from 97,000 in 2015 to 40,000 while Liberal Democrat support had increased just 3% from 38,000 to 39,000. “Very little of the repeating narrative of a Lib Dem vote surge is true," he concluded.

Contrary to the impression given by much of the media, the second biggest gainers in the elections were not the Greens but ‘independents' who made a net gain of 285 seats, mainly from the Tories and Labour in pro-Brexit areas. Independents have in past elections mostly been right-leaning – the term has often been a guise for Tories to challenge Labour in areas where showing their true colours would be electoral suicide. There is, as yet, no definitive analysis of the politics of the independents in this election, but there is also no evidence either to suggest they are Remainers and some indications anecdotally that many are not.

No shift towards Remain

So what does this tell us? Firstly, the election was beyond doubt a disaster for the Tories, not only in the net number of seats lost (20 times as many as Labour) but also because the Lib Dem revival is concentrated in the South West and South, which is the traditional Tory-Lib Dem battleground, and therefore threatens Tory chances of gaining an overall parliamentary majority in a general election.

Secondly, while Labour cannot claim to have had a good night, the party did well in complicated circumstances to hold its support base together and make enough gains to largely offset losses in Brexit-voting areas.

Finally, there is no evidence in the results to support claims of significant voter movement from the Tories and Labour to Remain parties, as claimed by Phillipson and other supporters of a second referendum. On the contrary, for Labour, the pattern of the results suggests that the more Leave- leaning an area is, the more difficult the party found it to mobilise voters. It’s not possible to say definitively that the party lost seats because it was perceived as thwarting Brexit or as too Remain, but there is more evidence for that view than the opposite.

Steve Howell is author of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics, published by Accent Press and available on Amazon, Hive, BooksEtc and his own website: www.steve-howell.com

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